On Tuesday, the much-anticipated United States Ryder Cup captain’s picks were awkwardly announced via made-for-TV Zoom call. In a public speaking performance that made Jay Monahan look like Winston Churchill, Zach Johnson revealed his selections while reading through a series of written notes. Johnson’s six picks, along with their final position on the points list:
Brooks Koepka (7)
Jordan Spieth (8)
Collin Morikawa (10)
Sam Burns (12)
Rickie Fowler (13)
Justin Thomas (15)
A list of PGA Tour players who likely feel snubbed starts with Cameron Young, who finished 9th in points and was essentially named to the team by vice-captain Fred Couples just a few weeks ago. Keegan Bradley finished 11th on the points list and won the Travelers Championship. Lucas Glover finished just 16th in points, but won two of the last four events of the Tour season. LIV players Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson also had to merit consideration based on their recent play and prior experience in the Ryder Cup.
As always, ZJ’s picks led to a barrage of takes and opinions. A month from now, these takes will look smart or silly based on how players perform over three days of golf. By far the most controversial selection was Justin Thomas, who received a spot despite not qualifying for this year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs. ZJ cited JT’s past performance and leadership role in the team room as the reasons he made the team. Was it a good pick or a bad pick? That will ultimately be decided by how JT plays in Rome. Thomas has likely never played under more intense scrutiny.
One clear takeaway from Johnson’s presser: the Boys Club is back. Just a few years removed from the “task force” designed to shake up the old guard of the American team, we now have a whole new old guard. This phenomenon has developed over recent international competitions as a young crop of American star players accumulates more experience as regular members of these teams at both the Ryder Cup and at the Presidents Cup.
There’s also the insular pool of captains and vice-captains; Zach Johnson has served as an assistant multiple times before taking over as Ryder Cup captain, and while experience is good, it also tends to mean favoring the familiar. This was on full display Tuesday as Johnson called Rickie Fowler “my boy Rick” while stating Justin Thomas was “born for this.” When pressed on selecting players based on course fit, which could have meant taking a player like Cameron Young who projects well at Marco Simone, ZJ cryptically suggested that media and fans wouldn’t even understand it.
Captain Zach faces high stakes. He’s attempting to win for the first time in 30 YEARS on European soil. Out of all the parties involved in this year’s Cup, Johnson might have the most to gain from an American win. Winning captains become legends. For proof, just look at how the golf world still discusses the captaincies of Paul McGinley and Paul Azinger with reverence.
This whole situation raises an interesting question: should the Ryder Cup team be formed based on merit, or should it be the team that the captains and players want it to be?
There’s more money at stake than ever before for players involved in these team competitions. Some sponsorship contracts include bonuses either explicitly for making team events. Getting run during highly-visible events like the Ryder Cup also goes a long way towards earning PIP money from the Tour, too. Zach Johnson himself is financially vested in forming the best team, as a winning captaincy means plenty of financial reward, yes, but also plenty of praise. Win and he’s a genius for these picks, no matter why he made them. Lose and it’s the exact opposite; people still discuss the Tom Watson fiasco in 2014, to name just one example.
If you want my opinion: this selection process is fun and good for the sport. Yesterday’s reveal got casual fans talking about an event that’s over a month away, a rare thing for golf. It’s yet another example of the potential interest team golf can generate off the course, and another example of how LIV Golf failed when presented with the opportunity to actually shake things up. Other sports get plenty of run out of roster movement/construction, All-Star snubs, and year-end awards voting. This is one of the few times professional golf offers fans that kind of opportunity, and the response and discussion generated should be a sign that there’s a market for it. Let’s hope golf eventually takes advantage.
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